Thursday, July 9, 2015

COA Reverses Oakland Circuit on Right to DNA Testing

Yesterday, the Michigan Court of Appeals rendered its published opinion in People v Gilbert Lee Poole, Jr., Docket No. 315982, holding that Poole was entitled to DNA testing of blood samples preserved from the scene of a 1988 homicide.  The interesting aspect of the case is the fact that, in Poole's 1989 trial in Oakland County, blood typing of blood found at different areas of the scene had already excluded Poole as the source of the blood, and the jury was informed of that fact. Yet the jury still found him guilty of the murder.  Poole has a fairly rare blood type of AB, which represents only about 3% of the population.  The victim's blood type (O) was found in many areas of the crime scene, and the investigators found no type AB blood.  However, one blood sample, found on a rock in the victim's pants, was type B, matching neither Poole nor the victim.

Poole had petitioned the trial court on two separate occasions for DNA testing of the blood samples, and each time the trial court denied the request.  First, in 2006, Judge Edward Sosnick denied the request because "Evidence presented at the defendant's trial already established that the defendant’s blood [type] was not found on the victim."  Poole's second petition was also denied in 2012.  Judge Rae Lee Chabot held "the jury had been fully aware that defendant was not the source of any crime scene blood, given the blood-type evidence, yet the jury still convicted defendant.  DNA testing excluding defendant as a donor would therefore add nothing of relevance if a new trial took place." The defendant's second petition was the subject of the present appeal.

The Court of Appeals initially had affirmed Judge Chabot's ruling, finding that the decision before them had already been decided against the defendant (following Judge Sosnick's ruling), and, therefore, that decision was the law of the case.  Poole filed an application for leave to appeal with the Michigan Supreme Court.  In lieu of granting leave to appeal, the Supreme Court remanded the case to the Court of Appeals, holding that the earlier orders from the the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court did not constitute "law of the case" because the issue had not been decided on the merits in those courts.  Also, the Supreme Court held, "“no provision set forth in MCL 770.16 prohibits the issuance of an order granting DNA testing of previously tested biological material."

MCL 770.16 sets forth the hurdles a defendant must overcome in order to be granted the opportunity to have biological material, still in existence, analyzed for the presence of DNA.  They are: (1) defendant was convicted of a felony at trial before January 8, 2001, and is currently serving a prison sentence for the conviction; (2) that defendant’s petition was filed in the sentencing court before January 1, 2016; (3) that biological material was collected and identified during the police investigation of defendant’s case; (4) that defendant presented prima facie proof that the biological evidence sought to be tested was material to the question of defendant’s identity as the perpetrator of the murder; (5) that there is clear and convincing evidence that a sample of biological material is indeed available for DNA testing; (6) that there is clear and convincing evidence that the biological material was not previously subjected to DNA testing; and (7) that there is clear and convincing evidence that defendant’s identity as the perpetrator was at issue during his trial.

The issue for Poole was that the two trial court decisions had, apparently, concluded he failed to meet the requirement of subsection (4), that the DNA evidence was material to the question of the identity of the perpetrator.  Both trial court opinions had focused on the fact that Poole was excluded as the source of any blood evidence found at or around the scene.  Any further DNA testing would not yield any more evidence that would be material to the defendant's identity as the perpetrator of the crime.

However, the Court of Appeals, adhering to the meaning of the words chosen by the legislature, found that Poole had satisfied all seven of the requirements set forth by MCL 770.16.  Further, the statute mandates that the court "shall order DNA testing" once the defendant has satisfied the above requirements.  On the question of materiality, the court found that DNA testing is much more specific than the old, blood-typing evidence.  Testing of the sample that did not match either Poole or the victim could yield the identification of another individual involved in the murder.  Here, the only evidence that linked Poole to the murder was the fact that the two left the bar together and Poole's ex-girlfriend who claimed, five months after the homicide, to have heard Poole confess to it.  Therefore, the decision of the Oakland County Circuit Court, denying Poole's request for DNA testing, was reversed and the case remanded to the circuit court.

Poole was represented by Marla Mitchell-Cichon from the Cooley Innocence Project in Lansing. The prosecution was represented by Joshua Miller of the Oakland County Prosecutor's Office.  The local press has covered the result as well in the Oakland Press and the Detroit News.